Friday, May 28, 2010

PZ Myers--Used as a Critical Thinking Case Study

So, I was rereading PZ Myers’ response to my recent Religion Dispatches essay (in which, among other things, I challenge Myers’ infamous “Courtier’s Reply”), and I found it so riddled with problems—informal fallacies, sophistry, seemingly willful misinterpretations, and a kind of deep blindness to my broader point—that I almost started to feel sorry for the guy.

This temptation was quickly dispelled as I skimmed through the hundreds of comments by his legions of yes-men who praised him for his masterful “take-down” of this hapless Reitan character. And then my eye was caught by one comment I’d missed during the last go-around. Here’s what the commenter says:

Brilliant essay. But what keeps bothering me is... will Reitan ever read this?
Does he just post something like this then blissfully wander away in
ignorance? These people never, ever, EVER seem to respond to such high
quality critiques. Oh, sure, they love to respond to some idiots ripost, but
when its good...never.

How do they do that? How do they remain so detached from ever thinking about their position, what they wrote? I cannot understand being so purposefully ignorant.
At first it just made chuckle, that someone could make such a dogmatic (and erroneous) assumption. After all, I’d not only already read Myers’ critique, I’d written a quick response in which I zeroed in on a key instance of Myers’ willful mischaracterization of my point (a mischaracterization that is crucial to his entire “take-down” of my essay).

But I am now tempted to offer something more substantial—the sort of thing I might do in a critical thinking class (a kind of “spot the fallacies and sophistical argument-surrogates” exercise). Unfortunately, the piece is so riddled with problems from this perspective that to treat all of them would take more time than I have. So, this may have to be the first post in a series...if I have the energy to persist in an exercise of this sort.

Warning: This post is a bit more prickly than usual for me. In any event, here we go.

Poor Caricatures:

Let me begin with the very same part of Myers’ essay that I addressed in my last post. Myers, to his credit, quotes here a substantial chunk of my essay—the chunk in which I say the following:

But belief in God isn't primarily a belief about the contents of the empirical
world. It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one
that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world
and the lives we lead within it. To believe in God is to understand the world of
ordinary experience in terms of an interpretive worldview that posits the
existence of "something more."

He then immediately follows it up with these words: “Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good.”

Since I’ve already pointed out in my previous post just how far off the mark this supposed summary of my meaning happens to be, I won’t repeat that here. What I want to stress here is the sophistical argumentative strategy that is employed. Rather than attempting to restate the author’s actual thinking and critically assess its merits, he immediately offers a caricature.

But not just any caricature. Rather, he jumps to the strangest sort of caricature one can imagine—one in which the substantive content of the caricature has so little to do with what is actually stated in the quote that it doesn’t seem to even be a caricature of the quoted passage at all.

Let me help Myers out a bit. What he says here—“Religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good”—could actually be used as a caricature of some of the things I actually do say in my book and elsewhere. When I characterize the concept of God as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope” (the hope that the universe is not pitilessly indifferent but is in some fundamental way on the side the good), and I then endorse a pragmatic understanding of “faith” as the decision to live as if a hoped for possibility is true, these ideas might be (unfairly) caricatured in the terms Myers uses.

But using this "believe it because it's a feel good fairy tale" notion to caricature the passage he quotes from the RD essay is akin to using a political cartoon of Barack Obama (in which his ears are larger than his head) as a caricature of Hillary Clinton.

Let me put it baldly: Caricaturing what others say is unsound. It replaces careful argument by offering an up oversimplified straw man for mockery, leaving the more nuanced actual view uncritiqued. But using a caricature that doesn’t even resemble what is being mocked is not just unsound, it exemplifies an utter indifference to engaging seriously with what is being said. Myers can get away with this kind of thing only because his target audience is a crowd of followers eager to cheer him on. From the standpoint of an outsider, one is left scratching one’s head in utter bewilderment.

Leaving Important Stuff Out for the Sake of Creating a False Impression:

In the opening of his riposte, Myers says the following:

What Reitan does in his essay is an interesting sidestep. He acknowledges that there are two kinds of theologies — "apologetic theology", which attempts to address the reality of god's existence, and the misleadingly named "substantive theology", which he claims is about the operational consequences once we've assumed god's existence — and he simply waves away apologetic theology for now. He still claims there's good reason to believe, but it's not the topic here — it's exclusively about whether we can
dismiss "substantive theology", which is what the Courtier's Reply argues.
First of all, I should point out that he doesn’t exactly get me right when he says that I “claim there’s good reason to believe”--that, in effect, apologetic theology succeeds. In a sense, of course, I do claim this—but not in this essay, and almost certainly not in the sense he has in mind (since the sense in which I hold belief to be reasonable includes some observations about the nature of rationality that presuppose the kind of distinction between interpretive worldviews and empirical facts that Myers fails to understand and so simply ridicules).

What I do claim in the RD essay is that Dawkins hasn’t adequately addressed apologetic theology. It is true, of course, that I do not explore that point in the RD essay. But neither do I merely wave it away. Rather, I point out that since I’ve written an entire book in which large portions are devoted to making this point, I will focus on another point here. In other words, I say that there are two points to be made. One point I’ve already addressed at length, but the other still needs addressing. And so I will (start to) address it.

This certainly changes the significance of my exclusive emphasis on substantive theology. Rather than it sounding like I’m "sidestepping" and "waving away" a crucial issue because I don’t know how to address it, it becomes clear that I’m filling in a blank among things that I haven't yet addressed. But the former is more derogatory and more likely to make me sound like the kind of slippery hack Myers likes to caricature theologians and theistic philosophers as being. And so he goes with that.

And since my reasons for not taking up apologetic theology here don't have bearing on the strength of my argument for substantive theology in any event, insinuating (for argumentative effect) an erroneous negative account of those reasons amounts to the ad hominen fallacy.

Of course, it could be that Myers just wants to avoid helping to sell copies of my book--and that's why he left out mention of it. And once it was left out, he noticed that doing so enabled him to make a false impression that would illegitimately serve his rhetorical purposes...and jumped at the opportunity.

Skipping the Hard Stuff and Launching Headlong into Mischaracterization:

A bit further on, Myers attempts to summarize a key part of my argument in the following way:

He tries to claim that theology is just like naturalism, equally unjustifiable
and ultimately arbitrary, and simply a matter of convenience and compatibility
with our personal philosophies. We have to "try on" different philosophies about
the universe in order to determine which one fits, as if the universe is a rack
of clothes with different sizes for different folks, and we have to each pick
and choose to determine which universe is best for us.

Notice here that he makes no effort to explicate why I'd say that “theology is just like naturalism”—which isn’t what I say, by the way. What I say is that theistic worldviews, insofar as they offer a holistic interpretation of the facts rather than making factual claims, are in the same category as metaphysical naturalism: both make a claim about reality that can’t be tested empirically. In other words, if you’re presented with two rival claims—one holding that what is empirically observable exhausts what’s real, the other holding that it doesn’t—you can’t decide between them by appeal to empirical evidence. Empirical observation cannot determine whether there is more to reality than what is empirically observable.

Since this point is so obviously true--and since it implies immediately that naturalism is an empirically unfalsifiable worldview, and hence implies immediately that Myers is committed to an empirically unfalsifiable worldview--it's no wonder that Myers makes no attempt to seriously address this point. Rather, he just (mis)states it in a dismissive tone. The use of dismissive tones in lieau of argument is a standard sophistical tactic which critical thinking teachers warn against and Myers uses repeatedly as if it were a virue. It is not. It is an intellectual vice.

And when that vice is committed, it's often the case that it is being used to mask a weakness in someone's position. Given Myers' insistence both that nothing that defies empirical testing should be embraced and that metaphysical naturalism is true, it's no wonder he resorts to mockery when it's pointed out that metaphysical naturalism defies empirical testing.

He then proceeds quickly to mischaracterize my position, by stating that I conceive of alternative worldviews as “equally unjustifiable and ultimately arbitrary,” comprising a kind of “rack of clothes” from which we are all free to choose “which universe is best for us.”

Of course, choosing worldviews isn't the same as choosing universes. The universe is what it is. A worldview is a holistic understanding and interpretation of it--one which either fits with reality or doesn't, but one whose fit can't be tested empirically. Here, Myers entirely misses the crucial point, which is that I am in this essay attempting to sketch out a broad strategy for investigating the relative merits of something—which worldview we should embrace—that cannot be investigated through the empirical methods exemplified by the sciences.

Admittedly, it is not possible to offer in such a short essay a fully developed picture of this alternative method. If Myers were dissatisfied with the account of this method and desired a fuller picture, it would be fair to ask for more information—whereupon I might direct him to Hegel’s work (not that he’d read it).

But in a short essay one has to content oneself with modest points, and the modest point I was making was this: if there is one clearly necessary feature possessed by any strategy that is going to have any hope of helping us decide which worldview best captures the fundamental nature of reality, that necessary feature is this: a willingness to seeing how the world looks, how experience fits together, under the most carefully developed alternative worldviews. And that requires reading substantive theology.

Myers never engages with this central claim. Instead, he attributes to me a kind of crass relativism to which I do not ascribe. Either this is the result of a failure to read carefully and charitably, or it is the result of a willful misrepresentation. Either way, it is a poor example of sound critical engagement with the views of others. But why engage seriously and thoughtfully with the views of others when you just know you’re right and you’ve got legions of fans who will call your most sophistical prose a work of genius?

Unfortunately I’ve run out of time before running out of sophistry to critique (heading out of town for the long weekend). Since there are a few more whoppers in Myers' post, I may take them up when I get back. But this wholly negative exercise is tiring, so I might not.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Earned myself a post on Pharyngula!

My recent Religion Dispatches essay inspired a direct reply from the infamous PZ Myers himself, on his atheist blog "Pharyngula." Myers is the biologist whose "Courtier's Reply" I discuss in the RD essay. I must profess to being a bit...honored? He does, after all, compare me to the Dalai Lama (although, for him, it's not intended as a compliment).

A key element of his response is his summation of a passage from my essay, in which I point out that theistic belief is not a belief about the empirical world but rather a component of a worldview which interprets the world of immediate experience by positing a transcendent dimension to reality. Here's how he summarizes that claim: "Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good."

Um, no.

I'm saying that the question of whether there is more to reality than what we encounter in direct empirical experience is not a question we can answer through empirical means, and that there is a difference between a claim about the empirical world and a "way of seeing" the empirical world (a distinction I make at some length during my recent podcast interview for "Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot," over at Common Sense Atheism).

I am, furthermore, saying that some "ways of seeing," or interpretive worldviews, are made possible by positing realities that transcend the empirical world, and that the way to assess alternative interpretive worldviews (besides looking at their internal consistency and fit with experience) is to provisionally adopt them, see how well they work in practice, revise them accordingly, and continue doing so--in terms of a roughly Hegelian process that I sketched out, among other places, in my talk at the University of Tulsa last fall.

And I am saying everyone has an interpretive worldview--but that some have their interpretive lenses plastered so firmly to their face that they don't realize it. And I'm saying that immersing oneself in the writings of those who consciously attempt to understand and refine their own worldview in the light of lived experience can help those who are blind to their own assumptions realize that they have them and perhaps begin the process of internal critique. And I'm saying that the best theological writings (but not all theological writings) do this.

Among other things.

Responding to theology's critics

For those interested, I have a new feature article in today's Religion Dispatches. In brief, it's a defense of the discipline of theology and its relevance to the question of whether a transcendent reality or God exists.

Let me say a few words about this. For as long as there've been theologians trying to develop and refine theistic pictures of reality in the light of human experience, I'm sure there have been critics of particular theological ideas or theologians. But there is a growing trend these days towards a much broader criticism, one which thinks theology as such is worthless. An example appears in an essay in yesterday's Guardian, in which Terry Sanderson, the president of the UK's National Secular Society, dismissed the entire field of theology as so much drivel.

These critics aren't just saying that theology isn't for them, or that they don't understand it. What they're saying is that the field itself is valueless, nothing but a waste of time.

I think the best way to refute such criticisms is to have the critic read several major works in theology with the guidance of a reputable theologian who can help to introduce the novice to the technical language and the historic and intellectual contexts in which theological arguments evolved, and who can help navigate the way through the nuances of abstract arguments and ideas. In other words, real exposure to and understanding of theology, of the sort one gets by taking a couple of theology courses from good theology professors, offers the best answer to those who dismiss theology out of hand. The problem, of course, is that those who are already convinced that theology is nonsense aren't going to do that.

Another strategy is to attempt to briefly explain what theology is and then try to sketch out why one cannot legitimately ignore its work, even if one doesn't happen to believe in a God. A substantive and detailed account, one that walks through specific theological works and highlights their main themes and then shows why they matter, would end up being a work of theology and so would be the kind of thing the critics in question refuse to waste their time on. So one can try for something a bit more general, something with just enough substance to challenge the critic and, perhaps, inspire them to investigate the matter a bit further.

That is what Nick Spencer does in a contrasting article to Sanderson's in today's Guardian, and what I do in today's Religion Dispatches. But, looking at the dismissive comments that follow both articles (comments that systematically ignore the principle of charity), it's not clear that this strategy has any more hope of being effective.

So--for those who refuse to crack any of the great works of theology but think they are competent to make definitive pronouncements about the value of the field (as well as definitive pronouncements about the kinds of questions theologians wrestle with), is there any approach that is likely to shake their attitude of prejudicial dismissiveness? And if so, what would it be?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Spiritual Autobiography: The Beginning

I remember quite vividly the moment I came to believe in God. It was during the first semester of my freshman year in college, and it happened in the library. I was sitting at a wooden desk in “the stacks,” a quiet place by a high window, surrounded by books. Since I’d chosen to sit near the engineering texts, the only distraction was the graffiti scrawled on the desk.

But this was no ordinary graffiti. What dominated this particular wooden desk was a conversation about the meaning of life. Given how worn and faded the inaugural message was, it had obviously started long ago, perhaps decades. I wondered how many years separated each entry, how many generations of college students had carved their own thoughts into the wood with a ballpoint pen.

I can no longer recall their words, but I do remember that none of the additions were flippant or glib. This was graffiti-turned-serious, and those who chose to add their thoughts seemed to respect that. And I remember thinking I should add a message of my own.

The problem was that I didn’t have one. I had no idea what life was all about, or even if there was an “all about.” At some point during my high school years a species of atheism had crept over me—nothing militant or doctrinaire, just this vague sense that the material world was all there was and that religion was a comforting illusion created to help us cope with the inevitability of death.

I’d grown up the son of two preachers’ kids—and, like many preachers’ kids, my parents had rejected the religion of their upbringing. At some point in his young adulthood my father had realized that the Lutheran liturgies he recited on Sunday mornings were nothing more than rote words, habits without meaning. And so he left them behind without ceremony, becoming an agnostic scientist who spent his time thinking about what rock formations can tell us of the Earth’s history.

My mother’s break with her religious upbringing was more impassioned, a repudiation of the fundamentalist Baptist world she’d come to find increasingly claustrophobic. When her family immigrated to the United States in the 1950’s, they went from insular Baptist enclaves in small-town Scandinavia to the burgeoning cosmopolitanism of the Bay area. And so my mother found herself encountering a rich tapestry of ideas and perspectives, cultures and experiences that she wanted to explore. But to do so she had to cast off the worldview which insisted that all of these things were a threat, temptations put in her path to lead her away from God.

For my mother, the outcome of rejecting this worldview was a lingering, pluralistic spirituality too vague to have any practical bearing on the routines of daily life.

And so I grew up with parents for whom religion and religious life lay at the periphery of their concerns. We went to church inconsistently—a pleasant, milk-toast Methodist congregation—but only because my parents thought my sister and I should have some exposure to it “so that you’ll know what it is and can make your own decisions about it.”

And by the end of high school I’d pretty much reached the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. Over the course of my childhood I’d gone from an uncritical acceptance of theism as “just the way things are” (largely through the influence of my grandparents) to an indifferent agnosticism that tended towards atheism. I thought of church attendance as a nice way to make some friends, but I took the teachings of the church to be, most likely, nothing but old myths—harmless but probably false. Since there was no pressure from my family to be anything but such an indifferent agnostic, the stance was a comfortable one. Nothing defiant about it or daring. I was secular in the truest sense of the word: I lived in a world where God and religion just really didn’t matter.

And then I found myself in the stacks of the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library, dividing my time between my history textbook and this odd, cross-generational conversation about life’s meaning written on an old wooden desk.

It so happened that what I was reading in the textbook had to do with the meaning of life as well, at least in a broad sense. It was a section on the history of ideas in early modern Europe. While I can’t say for sure which specific philosophers I was reading about at the time, I’d guess that Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz were among them. What I remember clearly is finding myself, quite to my own surprise, abruptly engaged in deep metaphysical reflection for the first time in my life. All alone in the stacks, the sunlight streaming onto a desk cluttered with old graffiti, I began to think in earnest about the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

I must have spent a good hour in silent contemplation, the textbook—with its oversimplified summaries of philosophical ideas—all but forgotten. What I thought about during that hour was wide-ranging, but two things stand out in my memory. The first was a vivid image of something terrifying; the second a line of argument that assured me, with a degree of certainty I now know philosophical arguments can never wholly justify, that the terrifying image was just an illusion.

The image that terrified me was, to put it bluntly, nothing. That is, it was nothingness, nonexistence. As I thought about the meaning of life, I inevitably thought about the end of life, about death, and about what death was from the standpoint of the vague materialism I’d stumbled into during high school.

I’d never really thought about that before, about what death was. And as I confronted it I saw before me an endless expanse of nonexistence, of not being. In the face of that infinite sea of nothing, my finite life seemed a flimsy reed. The nothingness swamped me by its sheer vastness. What did it matter whether I lived for a day or a year or a hundred years? Against an eternity of nonexistence, it all seemed pointless—especially since it wasn’t just me who faced this fate. Every living creature would die, all consciousness would be extinguished. The nothingness began to appear to me like an all-consuming maw, as if it were the ultimate reality, as if existence and life and light were just an ephemeral moment in what was otherwise an endless night of nonbeing.

What I was encountering, tucked away in a sunny corner of the library, was the thing that Karl Barth takes to be the root of evil, the wellspring of human depravity and despair: Das Nichtige. The nothingness. When, years later, I read Barth’s account of it, there was a strong resonance, a deep familiarity. This was something I knew, something I’d seen.

But at the time, being an eighteen-year old kid, I recoiled from it almost as soon as it occurred to me. I quickly reconstructed for myself the pleasant little reality in which I existed: young and healthy with my whole life ahead of me, going to a prestigious private university with a National Merit Scholarship to help cover the costs, lots of chances to have fun, to party, to learn, to pursue romance with one or another of the pretty girls I saw wandering around the campus.

But even as I rebuilt this comfortable little self-understanding, a part of me sensed that it was little more than a tissue curtain hiding the nothingness from view. I retained the lingering sense that if this material existence was all there was, then all of it, everything I cared about, all my ambitions and dreams—all of it was vanity and illusion, and the best I could do was immerse myself in the business of life and try not to think about the deeper truths. Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you die.

And that’s what might have happened, except for the fact that my philosophical reverie wasn’t over. Although I couldn’t face the precipice I’d stumbled upon as I thought about materialism from my existential standpoint, my mind continued to gnaw at this same materialist worldview in another way.

Specifically, I began to think about how science explains the world around us. The things we see are made up of smaller things, and the patterns we observe are the macro-level consequences of more basic rules. Everything is explained mechanistically. If we want to know why things have the properties and powers that they have, we do so by understanding how the parts fit together and by learning the rules which govern their interaction.

Human beings have the powers and properties that they possess as an outcome of more basic building blocks organized in a certain way and interacting in accord with certain laws. But the building blocks themselves have powers and properties. So how do we explain them? We explain them by looking at more basic components organized in a certain way and interacting according to more general laws.

In my mind I was zooming in on myself, as if looking at what I was through the most powerful microscope imaginable. I zoomed in from organs to cells, from cells to molecules, from molecules to atoms, from atoms to subatomic particles. At each level, I was chopping up what I found and zooming in on the parts that made it up.

This is how you explain it, I thought—by taking it apart and looking at the pieces. But does it ever stop? It seemed to me in that moment, and I still believe it today, that an infinite regress of that sort of explanation explains nothing—it just keeps pushing the need for an explanation back one more level.

At this point my eighteen-year-old mind was swimming furiously to keep afloat in the conceptual depths I’d suddenly found myself in. I was excited, full of a sense of anticipation, as if I were on the verge of discovering some incredible secret. I thought: Material reality has to be infinitely divisible. Any component of a physical object occupies space, and space is mathematically divisible. Even if we get to a basic particle out of which all physical reality is constructed, doesn’t it have to either have extension or not? And if it has extension, then it’s divisible and so has parts. And if it has parts then how can it be the basic particle? But if it doesn’t have extension, than how can it be a physical thing at all?

Maybe it’s energy, I thought—but what the hell is energy? What is it other than some mysterious capacity to affect other things? Is the most basic thing just an unextended point of “capacity to affect other things”? If so, then it can’t be explained the way that science explains everything else. It will have to have the properties and powers that it has in its own right, rather than as a by-product of how more basic building blocks are organized and the rules which they follow.

And suddenly I found myself confronting this basic idea, that the most fundamental building block of reality would have to be nothing like the physical world studied by science, in which things can be understood mechanistically as the effects of constituent parts operating in accord with natural laws. Instead, there’d be this extensionless constituent that just is what it is, able to do things, to affect other things, for no reason other than its own nature—a nature defined in terms of something other than these reductionistic terms.

But then I had another thought: Since the basic building block of matter couldn’t have extension or structure (or it wouldn’t be the basic building block), the only thing making it different from nothing at all would have to be its power to affect and be affected by other things. And the other things affecting and being affected by it would have to be precisely in the same boat: they’d be nothing but the power to affect and be affected by other things.

But then what was it that was affecting and being affected? We’ve gotten rid of everything but the power to affect and be affected, without there being anything that is doing the affecting or experiencing the effects. Bits of nothing affecting and being affected by other bits of nothing.

It made no sense. I had the sudden, jarring certainty that materialism was conceptually incoherent, at least if it wasn’t grounded in something else more fundamental. And then, like a bright window opening up in my mind, I thought, “The something else is mind. The most fundamental reality is mind.” What else could it be? There was mind and matter, and when my mind plumbed far enough into the depths of matter, there was nothing material that could explain the material world.

And I suddenly had a vision of the universe, a vision in which everything that science studies is a vast outflow of a root consciousness, a unifying mind that acts in and through the physical universe, manifesting itself and expressing itself in all the things we see, in the physical laws that we discover, in the objects we touch and discern with our senses.

And I thought, there in the library: God.

And the nothingness that had been so terrifying to me, that had seemed to strip away all meaning from my life, was suddenly full of mind—the mind of God.

Let me be clear about a few things here. First, what I experienced at that desk in the library was not what I would classify as a mystical experience. While I came to have a sense of the unity of all things bound together by an ultimate mind, it was the outcome of speculative metaphysical thinking rather than of immediate numinous experience. It was the frantic philosophical speculations of a young intellect prodded by its first encounter with academic philosophy, along with a sense of solidarity with generations of college students pursuing a quest for meaning—in ballpoint pen, on a wooden library desk.

The second thing I want to be clear about is that the reasoning I went through at that library desk was hardly incontestable. Especially at the end, I made an intuitive leap that many will question—from the apparent untenability of materialism to the idea of mind at the root of all reality. The thinking I did that day (which, I am discovering, bears some striking resemblance to the much more careful and powerful thinking of the great 19th Century German philosopher, Hermann Lotze) was not the end of my spiritual and intellectual journey. It was the beginning.

What is significant for me is the kind of beginning it was. My religious life did not begin in my home, based on the teachings of my parents. It did not begin in church. It didn’t start with some profound mystical experience of the transcendent, as it does with some. The starting point was a line of philosophical speculation.

But the conclusion of that hour of philosophy was a sense that religious belief needed to be taken seriously, that religious practitioners might be on to something after all. I went, in the space of an hour, from a vague atheism to a strong intuitive sense that some species of theism was most likely true.

On the basis of that conviction, I went in search of religion—seriously in search of it—for the first time in my life. And by a set of coincidences the first thing I stumbled into on my search was a small community of charismatic evangelical Christians, a rather cult-like group that met every Friday night at the top floor of Wilson Commons (the University of Rochester’s amazing student union).

The group was called BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ); but my closest friends in college liked to call them BASIS (Brothers and Sisters in Space). They were, quite literally, Jesus freaks. But my conflicted relationship with that group—my fascination and flirtation with their fundamentalism and their faith—is a story for another day.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sam Harris on Objectivity in Ethics

Earlier today my teaching assistant called my attention to a TED talk by Sam Harris (author of the atheist bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) in which Harris supports objectivity in ethics--by arguing that science can (eventually, with the help of neuroscience) answer ethical questions. You can find a video of the talk here. Since what follows is my reaction to the talk, you may want to read what I say after having viewed the talk itself.

First, let me say that there is much in the talk that I agree with, especially when Harris talks about what objectivity in ethics implies and what it doesn't. Many of the points he makes are similar to ones I routinely make in my classes. For example, I often point out to my students that to say that a moral claim is objectively true is not the same as saying that moral principles don't admit of exceptions. And I often note that even if there are objective standards of human welfare, it doesn't follow that there is only one way for an individual or community to flourish. I've even used the example of physical health that Harris himself invokes to clarify this point.

And when Harris contrasted the conservative Muslim practice of requiring that women's bodies be covered with America's commercial exploitation of women's bodies, I found myself recalling a paper I recently received from a Muslim student in my business ethics class, in which the student carefully exposed the problems associated with the exploitation of women in advertising and the use of unrealistic ideals of female beauty to sell beauty products, and then made an argument for a cultural practice of modestly covering women's bodies as a solution to these problems--as, in effect, a way for women to be taken seriously as persons rather than being judged by how they look. While my extensive marginal comments raised a range of objections and challenges to his argument, I saw both of us groping towards the same kind of middle ground that Harris was pursuing, albeit each of us laden with our respective cultural backgrounds and so coming from opposite sides of the spectrum that Harris vividly depicted with his extreme images.

But despite a number of points of agreement, I have two broad worries about Harris's line of thinking as developed in this talk. First, while he makes the (to my mind rather obvious) point that we can learn much about the conditions of human flourishing and prospects for flourishing through scientific study of human beings, he leaps without argument from this observation to the conclusion that science can answer moral questions about what we ought to do and what ends or goals are worth pursuing.

He clearly makes this move because he is operating on the (unstated) assumption that what is right is what maximizes human flourishing (a species of utilitarianism). But utilitarianism is hardly an uncontested moral theory. And we can rightly ask with some skepticism whether he really thinks science can demonstrate that the utilitarian principle is correct—as opposed to, say, a deontological alternative which posits the intrinsic moral rightness of certain acts apart from their impact on human flourishing, or an egoistic alternative which holds with Ayn Rand that there is no non-indexical good, that the only good is my good or your good, and that only my good can be a reason for me to act (leading to the view that the right act for me is whatever makes me the happiest, regardless of how it affects others).

In short, while scientific study of the conditions of human flourishing is clearly relevant to answering moral questions, what one does with those scientific discoveries will be a function of moral precepts that do not themselves seem to be amenable to the same sort of scientific investigation. As such, to say that science can answer moral questions is problematic at best. Harris certainly hasn't offered any powerful reasons to think so in this talk.

My second problem goes beyond what is most obviously on display in this talk, having to do with worries about the ideological agenda into whose service Harris's claims about objective moral truth are being put. Harris rightly points out that religious demagogues typically embrace the same kind of moral objectivism he endorses, but they put it in the service of their own ideological agendas (and he expressed discomfort with being in the same camp as these demagogues).

The way I’d describe this is as follows: these demagogues adopt the view that there are objective truths in ethics in part for the sake of identifying an “out-group” of individuals and/or communities who are agents of objective evil, thus seeking to justify an in-group/out-group ideology which renders permissible the suspension of norms of moral decency with respect to members of the out-group. In effect, the good is threatened by the out-group, thereby justifying radical action on the part of the in-group in defense of the good. The out-group must be defeated, or it will be the victory of evil.

While Harris does not emphasize in this particular talk his own ideological opposition to religion, it remains as an obvious subtext—and in other writings that ideology becomes explicit and deeply unsettling, insofar as it precisely resembles in FORM the kind of ideology he rightly denounces when it is wedded to religious zealots. That is to say, Harris is not merely an atheist. He doesn't just think that religious believers are mistaken, nor is he apt to say that religion's moral track record is "mixed." For him, religion is evil and a source of evil, and those who are religious are, in his language, "on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas," one in which he thinks the very survival of humanity depends on the defeat of the religious side by the secular atheist one. Replace "atheism" and "religion" in this ideology with "Christianity" and "Islam," or with "Catholic" and "Protestant," and you can pretty quickly see that it is the same ideology of religious intolerance that has caused so much horror in history, only with all of religion now cast in the camp of the infidel or heretic, and atheism wearing the shining raimant of orthodoxy.

To put it simply, this kind of in-group/out-group ideology depends upon the premise that there is an objective moral truth, because it distinguishes the chosen group from the other group in terms of who has this truth and who poses a threat to it. That certainly doesn't mean that objectivitism in ethics inevitably entails in-group/out-group ideology (how could one say that such ideological thinking is objectively bad if one denied objective moral truth?). But if, like me, you think that such ideologies really are bad, then the defense of ethical objectivism for the sake of vindicating such an ideology will be a cause of deep distress. And I worry that this is exactly what is going on in Harris's case.

On the basis of years working in the field of nonviolence theory and cooperation and conflict studies--both in my academic work and in more practical terms as a facilitator for Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in prisons and other settings--I have become convinced that the deepest moral truths have to do with how we should resolve conflicts with those whose hopes, aims, and values conflict with our own. And I have become especially convinced that one of these deep moral truths is that we should address such conflicts on the basis of a recognition of shared humanity and a with a commitment to bridging the gap of difference so as to make possible mutual understanding and empathy in the face of profound disagreement and conflict--as opposed to, say, anathematizing those who disagree with us, or calling for their deaths or for their exclusion from full participation in the community.

In other words, I think one of the deepest (objective) moral truths is that when we are convinced we have the moral truth and we come into conflict with someone who we are convinced lacks it, and our conflict turns precisely on this difference, we have an obligation to value and affirm the humanity and integrity of the one we think is dead wrong. And part of that obligation is to listen as charitably as we can to their lived experience--including those elements of their experience which lead them to hold the view we find so misguided. Another part of that obligation is to honestly share who we are and what we stand for in a way that has the possibility of inspiring empathetic understanding rather than defensiveness.

And as I see it, one of the greatest impediments to this kind of engagement is the kind of in-group/out-group ideology that is so easy for most human beings to fall into, and which Harris himself is constantly lapsing into with respect to (western) religious communities. That he does so is not, I think, a matter of serious debate (I point out various ways in which it happens in Is God a Delusion?, as well as in a Religion Dispatches essay a while back in which I respond to his strident opposition to Francis Collins' appointment to head the NIH). The real question is how one is to respond to it.

I must confess to an ironic tendency to respond to it by lapsing into an in-group/out-group ideology with respect to those who resist or succumb to in-group/out-group ideologies. But I see this tendency as an objective moral evil. And seeing it at such is one of the things that helps me in the struggle to resist it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Falling into Wells

This morning, my pastor sent me an e-mail calling my attention to the inaugural essay in a new forum in the New York Times, "The Stone," which aims to offer a series of readable philosophical pieces by "contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." The opening sally is Simon Critchley's amusing and erudite take on what it means to be a philosopher.

Critchley takes his cue from Plato, who shares in The Theaetetus a story about Thales (taken by some to be the first philosopher). Thales was said to have fallen into a well while looking at the stars, prompting a servant girl to quip that he was so focused on trying to understand the heavens above that he failed to notice what was right at his feet. This anecdote is, in effect, offered as a metaphor for what it means to be a philosopher.

For this blog, I'd like to focus on one remark from Critchley's essay that I think may help to make a distinction I've been thinking about quite a bit recently--namely, the difference between being a Christian philosopher and an apologist. Here's Critchley's remark:

"Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention (sic), rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous."

Certainly, this has been my own experience as a philosopher. In business ethics classes, I refuse to honor the old American gods of capitalism and consumerism, leading the business majors and more economically conservative students in class to view me with suspicion. In my introductory philosophy classes, I make a special effort to introduce my students to arguments that call into question the dominant assumptions of the local culture. There has rarely been a church I've attended in which I haven't at some point challenged the pervasive views of the congregation (this is even true of the liberal UCC congregation I attended for several years).

But since writing Is God a Delusion?, I've found myself on more than one occasion referred to not as a philosopher writing about religion but as "an apologist" or "a Christian apologist." And this is a label that does not sit comfortably with me. I think of myself as a philosopher, and I think that being a philosopher is in a profound way incompatible with being an apologist.

Interestingly, at the same time that I've been called an apologist, I've been repeatedly accused of doing apologetics in a slippery way, by "redefining religion" so as to make it immune to new atheist challenges while at the same time making it unlike "actual" religion (if you look at the reviews of my work on Amazon, you'll see that this is a recurring theme among the more negative ones).

I suspect this accusation may not be uncommon for philosophers of religion whose views are in some broad sense sympathetic to religion. More precisely, I think they become the targets of this accusation when they're taken to be apologists. And as I said, I think there's crucial differences between being a philosopher and being an apologist.

This is not to say that a philosopher might not end up invoking many of the same arguments that an apologist invokes, or endorsing many of the same conclusions. But the apologist (at least as I understand "apologist" in its contemporary use) begins with a commitment to the sanctity of certain "gods"--by which, of course, both Critchley and I mean the normative presuppositions and commitments that define a practice or way of life, allegiance to which is necessary in order to engage in that practice or participate in that way of life. The apologist is one who guards these gods against various challenges, especially those coming from the outside (that is, from those who cleave to different gods).

And so we can have not only religious apologists but apologists for figure skating as a competitive sport, or apologists for associative advertising, or apologists for science or philosophy or even (one might suppose) for apologetics itself. In each of these cases, what characterizes the apologist is a commitment to guarding and protecting the practice and its "gods" from various challenges, especially ones that come from the outside, that is, from those who cleave to opposing gods. And a favored apologetic strategy is to attack the rival gods without mercy, as if the defeat of those rivals would amount to the victory of one's own.

The philosopher, however, begins from a different place and is pursuing different ends. To understand the difference, it's worth asking why philosophers fall into wells. The reason is because--at least to the extent that they are being philosophers (and no one is a philosopher about everything all the time)--they're not engaging in a practice or way of life but are instead critically assessing the normative assumptions which underlie it. They've paused from the task of actually living their life in order to evaluate its foundations. The more comprehensive this evaluation becomes, the less you will be capable of engaging in any practical task (because every practical task depends on taking certain things for granted). And so you may start falling into wells.

Or, perhaps, getting tackled. As anyone who's ever been on an American football field will tell you, it's hard to play football if you're actively re-evaluating the rules and objectives of the game or its value as a sport. If you're busy trying to decide whether the game might be improved by tweaking its rules (or whether a different game altogether might be somehow intrinsically more worthwhile), not only won't you help your team but you're likely to get smacked into the turf.

The star football player, in order to play the game well, has to honor the football gods--something which is achieved by taking them for granted so that the player can focus on engaging in the practice defined by these "gods." In the face of challenges that become too vocal to ignore, the player has several choices. One is to seek out the kind of reassurance that will enable him to return to the game unimpeded by doubts about its very viability.

This is what the football apologist provides. The apologist defends the game against its critics, in effect reassuring the players of their right to play the game just as it is.

The philosopher of football provides something else, something that only the rare player will actively seek out. The philosopher of the game will critically explore it and its rules, asking questions that do not take for granted the legitimacy of football as a human pursuit. Of course, such philosophical interrogation of the football gods can be pursued by someone whose stance is presumptively sympathetic--and it can be pursued by someone who is presumptively unsympathetic. It can be done by a lover of the game or by someone who experiences a visceral suspicion of any enterprise in which knocking people to the ground in pursuit of a zero-sum victory is an accepted practice.

So, consider a somewaht fleshed-out example. A lover of football hears the accusation that football reinforces stereotypical gender traits which in turn perpetuate oppressive patriarchy. Suppose the football lover responds by falling into a fiercely defensive posture, never asking whether the charge is justified but marshalling every available resource to vindicate the game in its current form. Much of that defense, we might suppose, takes the form of attacking feminism in order to show that its "gods" are unworthy of allegiance.

Such a person is a football apologist. But suppose someone hears the same challenge and is inspired by it to reflect critically on the football "gods." In that case one has a philosopher of football--even if, as may be the case, the process of reflection leads to the conclusion that the challenge misses the mark or (as is usually more likely) has some merit but calls only for revisions in the way the game is currently played as opposed to its abandonment.

It should be obvious that someone could be both a football player and a philosopher of football--but probably not at the very same moment. One might suppose that a football player would, by virtue of being personally invested in the game, suffer from potential biases that would interfere with a sound philosophical assessment of the game. But at the same time, a player would also enjoy certain insights that would add to the philosophical analysis. I know that I wouldn't want to do philosophy of sport without including players of the sport in the philosophical conversation. And while I'd probably generally prefer the perspectives of those players who are attempting to be philosophers rather than mere apologists, apologetic arguments are often worth listening to and may express the kinds of insights that only a passionate defender of the game would see. Philosophers can and do make use of apologetic arguments while doing philosophy.

In any event, if a Christian is also a philosopher about Christianity, we'd expect the philosophical analysis to be sympathetic, potentially influenced by biases but also by unique and helpful insights. And while there's no a priori guarantee that the outcome of a genuine philosophical analysis wouldn't be a total vindication of inherited Christian doctrine (of the sort apologists strive for), the fact is that the philosopher does not take this outcome as a given and then tailor arguments to that end. And so it is possible for the outcome of a Christian's philosophical engagement with Christianity to be the rejection of its "gods" (in the metaphorical sense being used here). But the more likely outcome is somewhat more modest--namely, a revised or modified version of the faith.

I say that this is the more likely outcome largely because I do not think it is possible for human beings, no matter how philosophical, to critically reflect on our "gods" in an utterly impartial domain occupied by nothing but uninterpreted objective evidence. But that this kind of impartial critical reflection is impossible doesn't mean that some sort of critical reflection on our gods is impossible. The best philosophy is an exercize in self-transcendence, in which human beings who are embedded in an array of communities and practices turn their critical attention inward. They look at and wrestle with some of the presuppositions which have so far defined who they are and how they live; and as a result of this introspection--inevitably shaped by the totality of these very presuppositions--they revise or modify some subset.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Recovered Snippet of a Story

I'm going to do something a bit different than I usually do on this blog, to see if there's any interest in this kind of thing.

Yesterday I was emptying out an old box of papers, and I found a sheet of paper in which I'd handwritten (in blue ink) the opening to a story. I know roughly when it was written, since it's on the back of a Yahoo! printout of driving directions with an October 2000 date stamp. But I have no memory of the story or the broader idea behind it. If I was going somewhere with it, the plan is long gone. All that remains is this opening.

So, I thought I'd share the opening with you...and, if you're so inclined, you can help me brainstorm story ideas. Who is Crystal Black? How old is she? What was her relationship with David? How did David die, and how long ago? What is the significance of the timing of her visits to the used book shop? What problem is she wrestling with, and how does it relate to David and to this used book shop, and this old message she'd carved into a bookshelf in the theology section?

Feel free to play! Here's the story opening:

Crystal Black would visit Zachariah’s Book Shop every third Wednesday just after five. She’d walk to the familiar place behind the mahogany shelves where Ritschl’s Doctrine of Reconciliation and Justification nestled close against Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics. There she’s settle, folding her legs under her on the floor. And she’d run her hand over words that years ago had been rough and splintery, but now were worn smooth and softened by the oil of her fingertips.

She’d carved those words into the wood with David’s pocket knife, which he’d lent her only days before his death because she’d needed something to unseal a box of books (always books). He’d meant for her to have it for just a moment, but somehow it made its way into the pocket of her denim coat. There it remained until she wore the coat again, two days after David’s death. Somehow her regrets always circled round that knife, as if it stood for all the words she’d never spoken and never heard.

The words had first been carved on a third Wednesday just after five, carved with tears and bitterness. Now there was only the ritual touch and, sometimes, a soft pang behind the eyes. The new proprietor of the shop recognized her face and nodded whenever she came in. But if he understood the rhythm of her visits he gave no sign. Maybe he thought she was a theologian. Maybe he was right.

Sometimes she’d buy a book, just to keep up appearances.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Promise and Perils of Authorial Voice--Academic Edition

Recently I’ve been thinking about how the literary concept of authorial voice relates to my scholarly life. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how authorial voice influences what I read, and by implication the direction of my research.

In a world where you can’t possibly read everything (especially if you’re a slow reader like me), you have to decide what you’ll read closely from cover to cover, what you’ll skim, and what you won’t read at all. The reality is that, for me, most books (even in my own field) fall into the last category. And at least in my own case, many end up there because of the author’s voice.

Here’s the idea behind authorial voice: authors have personalities, and reading their work can be as much an exposure to them (or at least to the personality they convey) as it is to the topic of their writing. An author has a “voice” in the literary sense to the extent that her personality comes out on the page—or even, I suppose, to the extent that it doesn't (generating the cold, impersonal voice characteristic of some academic writing). When I read, I’m exposed not only to ideas or thoughts or stories, but to the personalities that animate them.

Sometimes what this means is that I really enjoy reading the work of people I disagree with immensely. Sometimes it means that even though I don’t enjoy what they write, I’m captivated by it. And sometimes it means that reading a book is like spending an entire day with someone I can’t stand. Some people I can only take in small doses, and the same goes with their writing—I can manage an article, but an entire book would drive me mad.

There’s no question that the most successful “new atheist” authors—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—all have distinctive authorial voices. And those voices are part of what makes their books so successful. As much as I disagreed with The God Delusion, I enjoyed reading it. Dawkins’ wit and energy made it not merely an irritating read but a fun one. And while Sam Harris’s The End of Faith often made me irate (because of how I think it promulgates the kind of in-group/out-group ideological framework that I find so dangerous), the writing was elegant and compelling. Whatever else might be said about Harris, his written work has a certain charisma.

And I must confess to having a real soft spot for Christopher Hitchens. His book, god is not Great, is probably the least well-argued of the recent atheist bestsellers; but Hitchens himself may be the most compelling character. And that character comes out in his writing. While he’s prone towards pugilistic excess, it’s the sort of excess I’m inclined to forgive because of the passionate personality that motivates it. Although I not only disagree with what he says but also with the zero-sum approach he takes to debate, Hitchens nevertheless has a personality I’m drawn to. He seems like someone I’d enjoy hanging out with at a bar.

In short, "authorial voice" refers precisely to one of those things that, as a philosopher, I'm supposed to ignore so as to be able to focus on such things as the defensibility of the author's assertions, the soundness of the arguments, etc.

It is true that I have learned the art of extracting the argument in a piece of writing, then formally laying it out premise by premise, so as to assess its validity and identify possible objections. And once this work is done, I can look at the resultant argument as an artifact divorced from the personality of its originator. But even though I have been schooled in doing this, that doesn't mean authorial voice has no impact on my scholarly work. Most significantly, it impacts what I decide to read--and hence, which arguments I end up stripping of their authorial voice so that I can look exclusively at their logic.

When you commit yourself to reading a book, part of what you commit to is spending extended time in the author’s company. And if the author’s voice has the drone of that Chemistry professor who mumbled into the board every class period, then you’d better be darned sure the substance of what he has to say is worth the time, because you won’t enjoy his company.

And then there are the times when I confront what amounts to a personality clash. Despite myself, there are people in the world I just don’t like. Being in their presence is like being around an ex-spouse from a marriage that didn’t end well (but without the history to back up the feelings). Other people may get along famously with this person, but I’d just as soon eat raw chicken liver as spend an afternoon with them.

Often I can’t quite pin down the reason. Of course, they often stand for things I oppose, and this is part of my negative reaction. But there are others with the same opposing views or allegiances who don’t inspire such aversion. My aversion has to do with their character—or at least with prominent aspects of it that clash with my own.

But let me be clear. There are some people whose character I disapprove of in all sorts of ways, but I still find them fascinating. If they are authors, this personality is so arresting, and comes out so vividly, that I'm swept up by it even as I say to myself, "What a horrible person."

These are authorial voices that should repel me but don't. What I want to focus on here are the authorial voices that really do repel me. While these voices usually express character traits that I'd classify as vices, the vices aren't always those I find the most abominable on an intellectual level. Rather, they're the vices that grate most strongly against me--perhaps because they clash with vices of my own.

Sometimes this fact poses a scholarly challenge, because I find myself facing a strong aversion to reading things that, professionally, I probably ought to read.

I'm hesitant to give examples because talking about authorial voice--unlike talking about ideas and arguments--is necessarily personal. If I say that I don't like your ideas or I think your argument is fallacious, I'm not talking about you, whether or not you decide to take it personally. But when I discuss authorial voice, I'm talking about the personality of an author, at least as it comes across to me on the page.

But the grim reality is that no matter how much we might pretend otherwise, personality matters, even in academia. We are persons, affected by our perception of the personality of others--sometimes drawn together, sometimes repelled. And so, despite my hesitance, I'm going to give some concrete examples--not of people especially likely to read this blog, but of people that at least some readers of this blog are likely to have encountered and had their own reactions to (likely different from my own).

Let's begin with the conservative Christian apologist and philosopher, William Lane Craig. Whatever else might be said of him, Craig is a very smart man well schooled in philosophy who often (if not always) offers arguments worth wrestling with. And sometimes I do engage with them. For example, I challenge one of his arguments (effectively, I think) in my 2002 Religious Studies article, “Eternal Damnation and Blessed Ignorance.”

But I hate to read Craig’s work. Why? I might point out that his philosophical arguments are rigidly constrained by strict allegiance to conservative Christian dogma, and that this allegiance sometimes forces him to seriously entertain some deeply disturbing views (about, for example, the eternal fate of those who died without ever having encountered the gospel message). But there are other Christian philosophers about whom I’d be inclined to say the same, and to disapprove of for the same reason—and yet reading them doesn’t leave me feeling as if I’ve spent time with a particularly unpleasant relative.

The problem, in this case, lies with the personality on the page. There are many things that reveal that personality even in academic philosophical writing--obvious things like choice of topic, positions held, views expressed; less obvious things like word choice, strategy of argument, which objections and alternative views are taken seriously and which ignored, which metaphors or analogies are used, which ideas connected, which distinctions made.

But the truth is that when it comes to authorial voice, one doesn't deduce it from an assessment of these factors. Rather, one takes it in on an intuitive level. It's an holistic effect of the writing--sometimes one that emerges gradually, after reading quite a bit from the same author; sometimes one that hits after only a couple of paragraphs. One finds the author's voice agreeable, engaging...or not.

In the case of Craig, if I read enough for the voice to emerge (usually several pages), what strikes me is best captured by a series of personality snapshots. The first comes from my childhood. Back when I was growing up in Buffalo, NY, Michael Tilson Thomas (now music director for the San Francisco Symphony) was the conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Once, as I recall, I was at some fairly snooty gala event when Tilson Thomas swept in.

The impression he gave in that moment is surely not representative of his overall personality. It's just a snapshot of one small piece of it. But it's a piece that stuck with me. It wasn’t precisely arrogance. It wasn’t exactly showmanship. It had something to do with a sense of being entitled to the eyes that turned his way as he entered, as if he really believed himself to be somehow more real than everyone else in the room.

Such a personality trait, when it finds its way onto the page, isn't enough to repel me. But let's combine it with another, captured in a second snapshot--this one from an ancient philosophy class in college. The class didn't have any prerequisites, and hence was filled with students from other majors who were satisfying an upper level general education requirement. There was a philosophy major there who clearly longed to be up in front doing the teaching, and made every possible effort to achieve that dream from his seat at the back.

Three or four times every class period his hand would shoot up, all eyes would roll, and he’d begin (in a nasally voice), “This reminds me of…”—followed by a lengthy discourse on some 20th Century philosophical work nobody else had heard of. We stopped paying attention to his actual words fairly early in the semester. What we heard instead went something like this: “Look at how smart I am, and how much more I know about this stuff than any of you. I’m going to shove all your faces in my genius just the way people like you used to shove my face in the toilet back in middle school. Take that, you fools! And that! And that!”

If I weren’t so annoyed at him for hijacking the class, I’d have felt sorry for the guy. Without other characteristics woven in with it, a voice like that wouldn't repel me, although I'd tire of it pretty quickly.

But let's add a third snapshot. It comes from an event I’ve already talked about on this blog, when I was giving a talk about my book for OSU’s Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff. I had an exchange with a conservative member of the group, a conversation which came to a crashing halt when I expressed disagreement with him and he replied, “Then you disagree with God.” There was an expression on his face at that moment, a tightening of his lips, that sent all the blood to my face.

Weave these three things together, and you have the authorial voice of William Lane Craig, at least as it presents itself to me. It may be that the impression he gives when you meet him in person is nothing like this—but the impression that comes to me off the page is just like that.

Any of the elements by themselves wouldn’t generate the level of aversion I experience, although the "If you disagree with me you disgaree with God" trait comes close. (These words, by the way, are something Craig has the good sense never to actually voice out loud, but I nevertheless hear them in the background). But when woven together, these traits so grate on my nerves that I want to reject everything the author says—even when, as does occasionally happen in Craig's case, I agree with him.

And I suspect that my research program is influenced by this. Among other things, I simply haven’t done any scholarly work on the Kalam Cosmological Argument. None. Because there’s no possible way to do so without seriously engaging with Craig's work.

Consider another case. This one relates to a book that it seems to me I ought to read but haven’t. The book (which I think came out at around the time I was finishing my manuscript of Is God a Delusion?) is John Loftus’s Why I Became an Atheist . Loftus is a former evangelical Christian apologist and preacher who “de-converted” to atheism, and who now energetically pursues what he calls “counter-apologetics,” not only through his books and speaking engagements but through his blog, Debunking Christianity , which I make an effort to check out every once in awhile. In these respects he's very similar to the young atheist who maintains the Common Sense Atheism blog, Luke Muehlhauser. But whereas I really enjoy Luke's authorial voice and can spend considerable time reading his stuff, the same cannot be said for Loftus.

Why I Became an Atheist tells the story of Loftus’s intellectual journey from Christian apologist to proselytizing atheist, and in the process makes a case against theistic religion in general and Christianity in particular—a case that, from what I can tell, is likely to be more philosophically astute and informed about evangelical Christianity (if not progressive theology) than the bestsellers I responded to in my book.

But I haven’t read it. I suppose there are several reasons for this. One has to do with the book’s content. A driving idea behind it is what Loftus has come to call the “Outsider Test of Faith”—essentially the view that Christians should test their faith according to the same standards they use to reject rival faiths. His argument is that Christians have reasons for rejecting Hinduism and Islam and Judaism, etc.—and consistency requires that they use the same criteria to assess their own faith that they invoke in assessing others.

This principle seems sound enough within its sphere of application, but it is clearly framed in response to an exclusivist brand of religious epistemology radically at odds with the pragmatic and neo-Hegelian approach that I find compelling—an approach which leads me to articulate an inclusivist respect for alternative religious traditions conditioned by what I call (in my book) “the logic of faith”—a logic which imposes standards on when it is morally and intellectually appropriate to live as if a hoped-for possibility is true. These standards are ones I apply to my own religious life as well as to the religious lives of others. It is according to these standards that I extend conditional respect to a diversity of religious traditions—the condition being that they fall within the parameters of the logic of faith. And it is according to these standards that I trenchantly oppose more fundamentalistic expressions of Christianity.

In other words, Loftus is not talking to people like me—whom he tends to dismiss rather precipitously on his blog as engaged in little more than intellectual gerrymandering to avoid atheist arguments. As far as I can tell, he never takes seriously the possibility that our perspective was arrived at through critical reflection in the light of a range of experiences, ideas, and arguments, including those pointed out by atheists like Loftus.

And this is one reason why I haven’t read his book. But it’s not the most important reason. The most important reason has to do with authorial voice. I’ve read enough of his blog to get a sense of it. And while I sometimes don't mind it (especially when he gets caught up in the substance and details of an argument), there are too many occasions when what I'll call a belligerent self-certainty saturates his words. And it grates on me.

This aversion to his authorial voice has led me to a not-so-trivial scholarly decision: Instead of reading Why I Became and Atheist, I will look at the anthology Loftus has recently edited, The Christian Delusion, which appears to be framed around some of the same core ideas and arguments that shaped his own de-conversion. While Loftus is the author of several entries in that anthology, his voice is interspersed with those of other atheist scholars (including the anthropologist David Eller, who wrote an uncharitable review of my book which I still haven’t carved out the time and energy to responded to, even though the several key misconstruals of my thinking deserve to be corrected—if someone wants to do it for me, please feel free).

In any event, despite being a bit put off (and astonished) by the nature and scope of Loftus’s book-promotion efforts (he even has a post in which he invites readers of his blog to become mini-sales reps for the book, going so far as to encourage them to “buy up copies to hand out” to Christian family and friends), I’ll probably get my hands on a copy of The Christian Delusion. Because I can manage Loftus’s authorial voice in small doses. What I can’t handle is spending 400+ pages in his company.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Loftus, before he de-converted, was not only an apologist in the same mold as William Lane Craig, but was his student. Maybe the character triats they inculcate in evangelical apologist circles are harder to shake off than the doctrines, and it is these traits I'm reacting to in both Craig and Loftus.

Be that as it may, there's no doubt that authorial voice matters. But despite its significance, it's not the sort of thing writers should attempt to manipulate or control. If one's readers don't like the personality on the page, the solution is not to fake a different personality. No author will get far with an inauthentic voice. And nobody has a personality that everyone finds congenial.

But if our authorial voice puts off a lot of people, it may be worth asking why. That is, it may be worth asking if we have vices that are manifesting on the page, character flaws that we can and should do something about. But we don't do something about them by changing how we write. We do something about them by changing who we are--by cultivating our character. The change in our writing--at least if one of the things we cultivate is authenticity--will follow.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Finding Perspective in the Midst of Success

Since I don't have time right now to attempt to articulate on this blog my perspective on some deep philosophical or theological problem, I want instead to ask readers how they would answer a certain pragmatic question that relates to some events in my own life.

Over this past weekend, not only have I been swamped with grading while simultaneously finishing up the run of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" at the Town & Gown Theatre, but the Oklahoma Writers' Federation had its annual conference. And so I found myself driving down to Oklahoma City each day for the conference, driving back to Stillwater in the later afternoons for performances, and trying to fit grading somewhere into the mix.

Saturday was an especially big day. I had a pitch session with an agent at the conference, and got the best conceivable result that such sessions generate: The agent wanted to see my entire manuscript (the manuscript at issue is a novel--a literary Christmas fantasy that might be marketable as Young Adult fiction).

After this I drove back to Stillwater for the penultimate performance of the play. And while I was backstage between scenes I got a call from my friends at the conference. They wanted to tell me about the awards ceremony (which I'd unfortunately had to miss for the sake of the play). At this ceremony, the results of Oklahoma Writers' Federation annual writing competition are announced. My two short story submissions both received first place in their respective categories, a poem got second place, and another poem got an honorable mention.

Giddy with the news, I went out for the final scene of the play, in which the cast collectively tells the story of Alexander Papaderos and his answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?"

Of course, his answer had nothing to do with attracting the interest of agents, winning awards, or getting standing ovations. It was about reflecting light into dark places (as described in this earlier post).

And of course, if you're all full of yourself it's hard to be a mirror, to reflect that which is greater than you, that which transcends you, and direct it where it will do the most good. To be a mirror calls for a certain kind of humility. And so I was forced--as I stood there with a small mirror in my hand thinking about my awards, as the audience thundered its enthusiastic applause--to try to put my recent accomplishments into some sort of perspective.

The point of awards isn't to give the recipients swollen heads. The point of applause isn't to make a performer feel self-important. And it can be just as ungracious to refuse appreciation for what one has done well as it is to be a snob about it. But what should I do with these awards and applause?

After the play--which just got better and better with every performance--I shook hands with delighted audience members, found my cheeks were hurting from so much smiling, and then was toasted by the rest of the cast and crew for my awards during the cast party that followed. And in the days since I've been wrestling with the question of how successes and honors play into a life lived well.

These recent successes of mine are, of course, relatively modest. I haven't won the Nobel Prize or earned a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. But even so, the events of the past week raise for me the question about what one should do with honors and appreciation. What is the proper virtue with respect to them? Are there examples that readers of this blog can offer of people who received honors with a special kind of grace, or used appreciation to "reflect the light" more powerfully than before?